Like C.S. Lewis's Narnia, the southwest tip of Michigan is an accessible escapeland, just an hour and a half from the city yet worlds apart. And unlike other getaway places popular among Chicagoans--Galena and Lake Geneva, to name a couple--this one has a varied personality: it has beaches and beach people, forests and forest people, farms and farmers. Also artists, architects, antique collectors, gardeners, and hobbyists of all sorts. It offers hang gliding, boating, fishing, wind surfing, biking, and cross-country skiing. And for those addicted to shopping, it has a growing number of trendy boutiques, restaurants, and bookstores.
The locals come in all varieties too. As in Chicago, the residents and shopkeepers represent a rich variety of ethnic groups and cultures: there's a Lithuanian resort, a Swedish bakery, German-American sausage shops, and all-American drive-ins with real carhops, not Ed Debevic-style caricatures.
Of course there are also visiting Chicagoans--everywhere, it seems. On any excursion--to the bakery, the local grocery, the sandwich shop, the liquor store--you're apt to run into someone you know. And when you run into someone you don't know, you're apt to greet each other and maybe start talking as if you did. For one of the intriguing aspects of Michigan is that it seems to be a place where Chicagoans go to be nice to other Chicagoans.
The best things are free, especially the Big Sur-like beaches with desolate dunes and tree-lined bluffs. Sunset time at the beach is pure enchantment, the golds and ambers of the sand, the vivid summer greens or autumn oranges of the trees, the shifting pastels of an unhindered sky. Public access points to the beaches are easy to find. One at Townline Road in Union Pier offers a deck from which to watch the sunset.
Another natural wonder is the 480-acre Warren Woods Nature Center, on Elm Valley Road, off Warren Woods Road, east of Union Pier. It is by official designation a "forest primeval," the closest thing we have to northern California's redwood forests, a place of stunning silences and shifting, whispering sibilances.
The closest country town is Three Oaks, surrounded by a variety of farms and orchards. Williams Orchard (107 Paw Paw, 616-756-9417), a few miles south of Three Oaks, offers U-pick apples and peaches in season. (The Jewel of pick-your-own places in southwestern Michigan is Stover's U-Pic, on route 31 in Berrien Springs, 616-471-1401. You can pick most everything there from apricots to zucchini.)
One of the area's best shops is Drier's Meat Market in downtown Three Oaks (14 Elm Street, 616-756-3101), a living, breathing magazine article full of museum relics, witticisms, unique artifacts (a Bill Blass butcher coat), and country civility. If you're lucky you'll meet Ed Drier himself, who always has time to talk with customers. He may show you a few pieces from his collection of original artwork, including one done for him by Ivan Albright. Drier makes the best hams in the midwest and puts together distinctive sausages--a tangy "baloney" and a piquant pate-like liver sausage, best when served with Drier's own tangy mustard.
Chicagoans also should try to make it to a local auction. Auctioneers say Chicagoans help the economy by driving up prices with their generous bidding. Auctions are major social events--particularly those Monday nights in downtown Sawyer. Many are run by an outfit called the Ed Mischke Auction Service, 616-469-5004 or 616-426-4520.
Other points of interest are located farther west near the lakeshore towns along the Red Arrow Highway (U.S. 12), They include:
Restaurants (in alphabetical order): Antonia's Cafe in Sawyer, great for home-cooked luncheons; 616-426-3645. Beyond the Sea Crab House in Union Pier, featuring crabs, mussels, and a friendly, boisterous bar; 616-469-0200. Golda's in Sawyer, a deluxe hot dog and shake joint with a 50s theme that kids will love; 616-426-4114. Hyerdall's Cafe in Bridgman, a family restaurant known for its fried chicken, muffins and breads, mashed potatoes, and pies; 616-465-5546. Miller's Country House in Union Pier, the cla$$iest place in the area, with Pan-Asian specialties, a popular rack of lamb, and a flourless chocolate cake that some Chicagoans send out for; 616-469-5950. Redamak's in New Buffalo, a decent hamburger joint and bar where you can watch the Bears game and not go broke; 616-469-4522. Rosie's in New Buffalo, the most popular breakfast spot; 616-469-4382. Sharkey's in Union Pier, sandwiches, inexpensive gelato creations, and decor by artist-designer David Csicsko; 616-469-4800. Tosi's in Stevensville, an old and very popular place featuring authentic northern Italian cooking; 616-429-3689,
Wine tasting: The St. Julian Wine Company in Paw Paw, the oldest operating winery in Michigan, has a tasting room off I-94 at the Union Pier exit 6. Their large selection includes tasty inexpensive blushes, a fine all-purpose Vidal Blanc, decent champagnes, fruit sparklers, and gummy candies for kids; 616-469-3150. The Tabor Hill Winery, which offers a woody, full-bodied sherry without the nasty bite, operates an excellent restaurant overlooking its vineyards at 185 Mount Tabor Road in Buchanan, 616-422-1161, and a champagne cellar tasting room and store in Bridgman off I-94 at the Bridgman exit 16, 616-465-6566.
Lodging: The Inn at Union Pier has a great porch, fireplaces, Swedish stoves in every room, and a hot tub; 616-469-4700. Lakeside Studio Bed & Breakfast Inn, a part of Lakeside Studio for the Arts, feels like a 40s detective movie, an artist's retreat with a view of the lake from the veranda and a sculpture garden and honking geese in the back--but it's closed now until spring; 616-469-1377. Gintaras in Union Pier (also closed for the winter) is an old-fashioned Lithuanian resort plain but comfortable and definitely not trendy; 616-469-3298. The Pebble House in Lakeside is a bed and breakfast with homey charm and antiques galore (emphasis on mission furniture and other pieces from the Arts and Crafts movement); a tennis court, too; 616-489-1416.
Miscellania: Brennan's Book Store at 137 N. Whittaker St. in New Buffalo has a good collection, good conversation, and numerous signing parties by Chicago and local writers; 616-469-5730. The Local Color Gallery on the Red Arrow Highway in Union Pier offers art by 70 local artists, including handpainted shirts by Judy Signorino--Mrs. Slug--and daughters Sami and Susie; 616-469-5332. The Swedish Bakery on the Red Arrow Highway in Harbert has more than just Swedish, like Danish . . . kolachkis too; 616-469-1777. Wickmaster Candies at 126 N. Whittaker in New Buffalo has wax potpourri; 616-469-4472.
Further northeast, the Love Crook County Park & Nature Center in Berrien Center offers more than 100 acres of forests, meadows, marshes, and creeks, and, in winter, more than five miles of cross-country skiing trails: 9228 Huckleberry Road, 616-471-2617.
Much of what can be said about southwest Michigan applies as well to a short string of beach communities in northeast Indiana. Also in Indiana is the area's only real city--Michigan City, of course--some dollar-a-ticket, nearly first-run movie houses, a superb public library designed by Stanley Tigerman, and a minizoo at its lakefront Washington Park.